Mon. Nov 29th, 2021

Our planet is changing. It’s our journalism too. This story is part of a CBC News initiative entitled Our Changing Planet to show and explain the effects of climate change and what is being done about it.


Through the window of her home at Iceland’s presidential residence, Canadian Eliza Reid is in the unique position of being able to look out at some of the country’s most unique natural wonders – from volcanoes to spectacular views.

“People have lived here [in this location] since the settlement period over a thousand years ago, “said Reid, who is married to the President of Iceland, in an interview with CBC News.

Icelanders have proven exceptionally skilled throughout history to adapt to all sorts of environmental challenges, she said, including the most recent: a warming climate.

A courtyard by the residence overlooks a dramatic sea bay with a sky view of the capital Reykjavik and a silhouette of the still smoldering volcano, Mount Fagradalsfjall, in the distance.

Grazing and agricultural areas, including near the capital Reykjavik, are being restored to their traditional wetland. Iceland’s environmental agency estimates that about a third of the small country’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the agricultural sector. (Stephanie Jenzer / CBC)

But it is the wetlands and bird sanctuary, just meters away on the president’s property, that Reid and her husband, President Guðni Jóhannesson, draw the attention of a visiting CBC News team.

“There we had ditches,” Jóhannesson said, pointing to a grassy area close to the shoreline. “They were dug in the 1930s to cultivate the land. Now we fill up those ditches. [with water]. It’s a case of wetland recycling. “

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With the UN climate conference ready to begin on Sunday in Glasgow, the couple’s conversation with CBC News focused mainly on Iceland’s efforts to achieve COP26’s goal of net zero emissions by the middle of the century.

The Conference of Parties (COP), as it is known, meets every year and is the global decision-making body set up to implement the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, adopted in the early 1990s, and subsequent climate agreements.

SE | Eliza Reid on her adopted country’s solutions to climate change:

Iceland’s Canadian – born first lady sees solutions to climate change

Canadian-born Eliza Reid, married to Iceland’s president, talks to CBC News about climate change and what others can learn from her adopted homeland. 1:48

Dry ditches are filled with water

Iceland’s environmental agency estimates that about a third of the small country’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the agricultural sector.

It has become a national priority to bring tens of thousands of kilometers of dry ditches back to their original aqueous state to better absorb these emissions, putting the island one step closer to hitting net zero.

Seljalandsfoss waterfall in the south of Iceland. A rapidly growing tourism sector contributes to the country’s high greenhouse gas emissions per capita. per capita – the highest in Europe, according to its environmental agency. (Stephanie Jenzer / CBC)

“I definitely see an environment changing,” Reid said, noting that a glacier that once nearly touched Reykjavik’s city limits has retreated five kilometers since she moved here in 2003.

“But there are also wonderfully optimistic examples of work that we are doing to try to improve this.”

Reid, 45, has been Iceland’s first lady since Jóhannesson was elected president five years ago. The President of Iceland is the Head of State, but the executive is in the hands of the government.

Reid grew up near the Ottawa Valley community in Ashton, Ont., And the couple met while they were both studying history at Oxford University in England.

Fjallsárlón glacier lake. The lake has grown rapidly over the last 20 years as the glacier over it melts. (Jean-François Bisson / CBC)

After they became engaged, she accompanied him to Iceland, where she eventually learned Icelandic and raised four children.

“There is no job description, which is the scary and wonderful thing about it,” Reid said of his position as spouse to the head of state.

“But it is an honor and a privilege to have the opportunity and the platform to serve my adopted country in this way.”

Reid has also just published a book on gender equality in Iceland with stories of prominent women and their successes.

Home of the world’s largest CO2 removal plant

At Iceland’s most recent parliamentary elections last month, voter turnout was often described as being between the parties and candidates who pledge to achieve CO2 neutrality by 2040 – a decade ahead of most other European nations – and opponents who claim the date for net zero should take place. even faster.

“Iceland is a global leader in renewable energy sources,” Reid said. “You know, the building we’re sitting in now is heated by geothermal energy, or the electricity is supplied by renewable sources.”

A farm at the foot of the ice cap Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland. (Stephanie Jenzer / CBC)

As many as 85 percent of the houses in Iceland are heated by geothermal energy – perhaps not surprisingly, given that the island is located on top of a series of bubbling volcanoes.

Throughout the capital, people enjoy relaxing year-round in outdoor pools heated by the energy of the earth.

But Jóhannesson says the technology to harness geothermal energy can be used almost anywhere.

“All over the world you can find Icelandic companies trying to develop geothermal energy together with interested parties. So this is one of the keys to tackling the climate crisis – not just to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, but also to create cleaner, better cities. “

The beach and pool at Nauthólsvík in Reykjavik. In summer, water heated by geothermal energy is pumped into the sea, which raises the water temperature and allows people to swim comfortably. (Stephanie Jenzer / CBC)

Iceland is also the new home of the world’s largest direct air capture facility. The Swiss company Climeworks has spent 10 million USD on building the plant next to a geothermal station on the outskirts of Reykjavik.

Until now, carbon capture has focused primarily on industrial operations, such as emissions from oil refineries, where gases are concentrated and easier to capture. However, the technology used in the Climeworks plant makes it possible to separate and collect dispersed CO2 in the atmosphere.

The captured gas is then buried underground, where it chemically reacts with Iceland’s volcanic rocks and fossils, sealing the gas forever.

The presidential residence, Bessastaðir, outside Reykjavik. (Stephanie Jenzer / CBC)

The Icelandic factory’s annual capacity of 4,000 tonnes of CO2 per year is modest compared to collection operations linked to refineries – which draw hundreds of thousands of tonnes of greenhouse gases annually. However, direct air collection has the potential to offset emissions from any industry, anywhere.

“So this technology of capturing CO2 in the atmosphere and drilling it into the Earth can be used elsewhere. It’s just a matter of economics and the right conditions,” Jóhannesson said.

Despite successes, Iceland faces challenges

Yet Iceland faces major challenges in reaching its own net-zero milestones.

Although it is only home to 380,000 people, the country’s environmental agency says it has the highest greenhouse gas emissions per capita. per capita in Europe.

A CBC News team interviews Jóhannesson, in the middle, and Reid, on the left, outside Iceland’s presidential residence near Reykjavik. (Stephanie Jenzer / CBC)

Iceland has several large aluminum plants that are large emitters, and the need to fly or ship most goods also contributes to increased emissions.

The tourism sector is also expanding rapidly, Jóhannesson said, and is now surpassing the income from fishing, the former top earner. These extra visitors only increase the country’s emission footprint.

Reid says Icelanders share a common trait with Canadians, as their lives are shaped by a northern climate, and she says they share a similar view of the need to slow down the pace of climate change or face serious risks.

“We know that nature is the boss.”

SE | Arctic nations meet in Iceland to discuss mitigating effects of climate change:

Arctic nations discuss mitigating effects of climate change

Arctic nations met in Reykjavik ahead of the UN COP26 climate summit to discuss their unique perspective on climate change and how to mitigate its effects. 2:10

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